Monday, June 23, 2008

Rubbing Elbows with Movie Stars

Early in season 4 of Lost, Miles Strom went into a black woman's house to chat up a ghost. On the stairway wall was a picture of a young black boy -- many speculared it was the young Mr. Eko. But it wasn't. I asked him.

Yesterday my wife and I were at a grocery store in Mira Loma, California, and I saw this kid who looked so familiar. I knew I knew him from somewhere. Maybe a former student or something? But then -- WHAM! -- it hit me. This was the young Mr. Eko! Or at least he looked exactly like him.
Now I am overly sensitive when it comes to any kind of racist claim, so the last thing I wanted to do was approach him and ask "hey, you're young Eko, huh?" cuz of the whole you-must-think-all-black-people-look-alike thing. But my wife was smarter and generally less concerned about that sort of thing than I am, so she walked up to him and asked him, "excuse me, have you been on TV?
He smiled shyly and said yes.
"Were you on Lost?"
And we spoke to him for a few minutes. Nice kid. His name is Kola (officially Kolawole Obileye, Jr. ). He just bought a new house near the area and came to the store to get a can opener. He is very busy with school -- only did Lost as a fun little thing to do -- doesn't really even follow the show much. When I told him that we hoped to see him again on the show, he smiled and said "I'm dead now." But with Lost, you never know.
Checkmate, young Mr. Eko.

Of course Tracey wanted to tell everyone "we met a movie star, guess who it was?" But me, being the wet blanket stick-in-the-mud "details and accuracy matter" kind of guy that I am argued, "well, he hasn't been in any movies, and he's really not a star -- just two episodes of our favorite TV show, that's it."

But no. That's not how things work around here. He's a movie star. And now, apparently, we are best friends with him, too.

Nice to meet you Kola. Good luck with the rest of your career! (I'm sure we'll be in touch).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Normal Form

When I taught my F101: Intro to Folklore classes, early in the semester I would introduce a concept known as “normal form.” It’s a pretty simple concept to understand. It states that within all the different variations of any given tradition, the version that will seem most “normal” to you is the version you were first introduced to. That version then becomes the standard by which you measure every other variant you might enounter. But here is the important, non-judgmental thing that I wanted my students to remember: Your normal form is not intrinsically any better or worse than anyone else’s normal form. It’s just different. And different does not mean wrong.

For example, I grew up hearing the children’s song “little old house in the middle of the woods, little old man by the window stood.” My wife grew up hearing it “little old house in the middle of the woods, nice old man by the window stood.” A small variation, but big enough to make me cringe and want to “correct” her every time I heard it the “wrong” way. But according to normal form, it isn’t really wrong, it’s just different than the way I learned it. It’s just not my normal form.

I admit that when I first came to Japan in 1991, I was a little grossed out by the toilet-sink unit in my apartment. To conserve space, the Japanese had built a water spout right on top of the toilet’s water tank. When you flushed the toilet, water came out of the spout, reminding you to wash your hands… in toilet water. It was not normal to me, and it took me a while to feel comfortable touching that water, even though I realized I was getting it on the front end, before it came into contact with anything I had, um… placed in the toilet myself. But the Japanese are generally a meticulously hygenic people who take great care to wash and be clean, so as long as the water was on the front end and it was clearly separate from the other toilet business, I figured I could get used to it, and I have.

Yesterday, however… well, you just have to see this for yourself.

I was at the DMV to take a driving test. I saw this sign in the public bathroom stall and just couldn’t believe it. The picture is a little fuzzy, but here is an example of some brainiac Japanese engineering wizard who decided to conserve space even more. Why build a spout on top of the water tank when you can put it right there in the toilet bowl?

Instructions for use:

1. Locate the flushing button.
2. Turn the flushing button on.
3. Wash your hands as the water spouts into the toilet bowl.
4. Turn the flushing button off.

Yep. That’s right! Wash your hands right down there above the pretty, colorful whirlpool – just be careful of swirling debris.

So much for the relativist fairness of normal form. Sorry students. This is simply wrong.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Highway to Hell

I must have been a junior in high school when this happened. My bedroom was in the basement. It was a big room with two twin beds, although I had the room completely to myself. At the far end was a window that looked out into a small dirt-filled window-well with a barred fire-escape grate above. It was a good, comfortable room.

As usual, I said my prayers before going to sleep. I frequently enjoyed listening to my radio as I fell asleep. It was soothing. But this night was different. My radio was on a different station than normal, and they were playing more hard/classic rock than my Billy Joel-accustomed ears were used to. But I was sleepy and too lazy to reach over and change the station. So I just laid there, until AC/DC’s Highway to Hell came on. It was night, it was dark, and I started getting a little scared.

So, I leaned over and hit my snooze bar. Only, it didn’t work. So I hit it again, harder. Still nothing. I leaned over further and twisted the knob to the “OFF” position. But that didn’t work either. I could still hear the music, and now I was getting really creeped out. So I reached out and yanked the plug out of the wall. But to my fear and amazement, that had no affect, either. The lights from the clock were completely dark, and the music was not quite as loud as it had been at first, but I could still hear it, and it was still creepy. So I started to pray.

I felt little comfort praying over the sound of the music. When the song ended, I finally heard silence. But I kept on praying. Something just didn’t feel right. Somehow -- I don't know exactly how -- I was eventually able to fall asleep.

A few hours later (I can’t be sure of the time, because I had unplugged the clock radio) I awoke with a start to the sound of my name. Someone was calling out to me, from inside of my room. I can’t describe the cold chill that ran through me as I heard my name again and again. Shakily, I reached up and flicked on the light. There on the far side of my room, just inside the window, was a man. He was wearing normal looking clothes and just looked like an average guy. He smiled.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He said that he was a messenger from God. He explained that God had heard my many prayers over the years and that he had been sent to provide further light and knowledge. It is true, I had been praying for such an experience for many years, but I still felt very uneasy. I wanted some reassurance.

As I looked at this guy standing there so casually – so friendly – I remembered a lesson I had heard in church, that if a spirit comes to you claiming he is from God, ask him to shake his hand. If he is really from God, and is a resurrected being, you will feel the handshake. If he is not yet resurrected, he will honestly explain that to you and refuse to shake. But if he is an evil spirit, he will try to deceive you. He will reach for your hand but you will feel nothing.

My voice was trembling so much that I could barely form the words. “Can I shake your hand?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, with a reassuring smile, and he moved – it was like he glided – over to the side of my bed. “Here you go,” he said, and he reached out his hand.

I tried to steady my trembling so he wouldn't see that I was scared. I reach out and felt nothing. Still, he continued to smile as if nothing were wrong. Terrified, I raised my arm to the square and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave.”

No sooner did I start the motion than he recognized what I was about to do, and in that single moment his entire countenance changed. His face became lined and pointed and ugly. He scowled and gnashed his teeth. Spit came from his mouth as he swore at me again and again and told me I would never be rid of him – that he would always be with me -- and that there were more of them. They would get me in the end. I had no hope.

As he said these things, he moved backwards towards the window, as if struggling against a force that was sucking him out of the room. He finally disappeared into what I can only describe as a folding cloud of dark light, and then he was gone.

I was sweating from head to toe, and my heart was racing a mile a minute. I opened my door and turned on all the lights in the house on my way upstairs to my parents’ bedroom. I didn’t say a word – I just crawled on to the foot of their bed and tried to get some sleep. I have never been so terrified in my life.

Pretty good story, huh? Of course none of it is true (aside from the description of my bedroom, and my prayers for angelic ministration, and the hand-shake lesson I had heard at church, and -- of course -- the Billy Joel-tuned ears). But I used to tell it like it was THE MOST traumatic experience I had ever had. And I was good at it, too – very convincing. One of my spiritual gifts, perhaps -- I've always been a good liar.

It started simply enough with the devil music that wouldn’t shut off (the first version was Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven) and at some point evolved into a much larger tale. I originally intended it as a joke to my friends Kevin and Clark who wanted to listen to that kind of music in their car when I wanted to put on the Beatles. But somehow it grew.

The last time I told it as a “real experience” was my freshman year at college. A group of us were up in the Canyon one night around a campfire. People naturally started telling scary stories. They were all FOAF stories (Friend Of A Friend) about someone’s aunt who’s brother-in-law had seen a chair move, etc etc. I knew I had them all beat. So I waited for the right moment and gave my little performance. When I was finished you could hear a pin drop – it was awesome. But later that night, something really disturbing happened.

A guy came up to me with tears in his eyes. He shook my hand and thanked me profusely for my bravery and strength and personal righteousness. He told me that I had changed his life that night. See, his two older brothers had rebelled against the family and the church, and he was starting to follow in their path. He had brought his girlfriend up to the canyon that night with a couple of sleeping bags in the back of his truck. They had been virtuous and pure up to this point, but were planning to... you know… do unspeakably devilish things to each other under the pale light of the silvery moon. But then he heard my story, and he felt the promptings of the Holy Ghost stronger than he had ever felt in his life before. And he knew that what I was saying was true and he knew that what he was about to do was wrong and he knew that he needed to turn his life around. So he did, and he had me and my righteous example to thank for it.

I felt empty – shocked – guilty. And a little confused. I knew my performance was good – that the details of the story met traditional expectations and that my delivery and tone and dramatic pauses and facial expressions were all right on – but Holy-Ghost-strength-of-the-Spirit-your-story-changed-my-life-forever good? Troubling.

That was probably the first time I actually considered that these powerful spiritual promptings people feel may possibly be something else. But I decided that day that I didn’t want any part in that powerful deception and manipulation of emotions -- at least not where this story was concerned. That even if the outcome could be considered "good," I was playing with fire, and maybe – just maybe – that experience scared me a little straight. It's all still up to debate.